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The Discordant Notes of Open Orthodoxy

What Makes a Community a Community?
Rabbi Eliyahu Safran

Rabbi Eliyahu Safran

A leader without a community is a stray voice in the wind. A community without a leader is little more than a mob.

The relationship between leader and community brings to mind two stories.

The first is of a poor simpleton who was befriended by a millionaire lover of music who happened to have a private orchestra. One day, the simpleton asked to be assigned a position in the orchestra. Astonished, the rich man exclaimed, “I had no idea you could play an instrument.”

“I can’t,” the simpleton replied. “But I see you have a man there who does nothing but wave a stick around while the others are really working hard, playing. His job I can do.”

How many of us are like that simpleton, believing that leaders do nothing more than “wave a stick around”? How many of us believe it is only the orchestra, the community, that does the work?

The second story also concerns an orchestra. During rehearsal, everything seemed to be going perfectly. Gorgeous music filled the hall as 150 skilled musicians responded to the maestro’s guiding hands. Suddenly, in the midst of a fortissimo passage, the conductor rapped the music stand. Music fell to silence. “Where is the piccolo?” he demanded.

The piccolo player had missed his entry, and even in the exalted fullness of the orchestra’s playing, the maestro heard what was missing.

Trained, seasoned and sensitive leaders keep their eyes and ears attuned to the role and mission of every community member. Only when everyone plays together, closely watching and following the leader’s direction, is there perfect harmony.

And such a performance deserves thunderous applause.

Open Orthodoxy, a much-discussed phenomenon in the Jewish community, is an orchestra that disregards its conductor. What is left is disharmony and discord. I cannot help but believe that anyone preaching Open Orthodoxy would ever consider himself part of an Orthodox orchestra if he knew his discordant and thunderous noise would be immediately halted by a fine-eared maestro rapping on his shtender and demanding, “Where is the piccolo?”

Such a maestro would demand to know, “Is this what you learned from my decades of preaching and teaching? Is this what I left you with? So soon after leaving you, you destroy what I built, and you still parade as my talmidim, with no shame?”

That maestro, of course, could be none other than Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, ztl, the Rav. I have no doubt that were the Rav alive today, Open Orthodoxy would not be so much as a bad dream. Not one of its leaders and spokesmen, senior or junior, would risk being escorted into the Rav’s apartment – where every guest arrived with chil u’reada, with fear and trembling – in the Yeshiva University dorm to explain the catalog of trespasses, from ordaining women and then having them serve as rabbinic staff at Orthodox synagogues to changing gender roles in synagogue services (women leading Kabbalat Shabbat, reading in shul from the Torah, serving as makriah for shofar blowing) to even promoting gay marriage and changing conversion standards.

Owning up to that list of trespasses against the community’s norms would be challenging enough, but would Open Orthodoxy mentors have the audacity to explain to the Rav the reasoning behind their denial of ikarei haemunah, including the historicity of the Torah, the existence of the Avot, the Exodus, the existence of prophecy, the Messiah? Would they have the chutzpah to rationalize to the Rav their policies regarding interfaith and interdenominational issues, including conducting interfaith programs in their synagogues?

They would not have dared. It is inconceivable that anyone involved in the Open Orthodoxy movement would have dared challenge the conductor who brilliantly led the Modern Orthodox orchestra until his passing two decades ago.

About the Author: Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, author and lecturer. He can be reached at e1948s@aol.com.


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